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André Leon Talley’s LBDs

Images by Lauren David Peden

André Leon Talley is something of an expert on the Little Black Dress, as can be seen in the exhibit he recently curated for his eponymous gallery at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. I attended the opening and sat down with André, a SCAD trustee who worked with the legendary Diana Vreeland back in her Met Museum Costume Institute days, to get his take—make that his pronouncements—on the current state of the LBD, delivered in his delightfully booming voice on the Spanish moss-draped live oak-shaded veranda of SCAD’s Magnolia Hall guesthouse. Charmed, I’m sure.

Above image: Detail of an embroidered lace with illusion inset evening dress, Stella McCartney Winter 2011.

“I kept thinking I had enough room [in the exhibit], but I did create great moments of pause. The eye must be calm. The eye must be excited.”

Left to right: Silk and silk taffeta shirt and floor-length red skirt, Oscar de la Renta Spring 2001. Beaded silk satin slip dress, Valentino haute couture 1991-92. Chantilly lace and cotton organza robe de style. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture Spring 1986.

“[Curating] is always the personal journey, the dialogue of the journey—be it whether you’ve read a book, seen a film. You know, there are things, like the scenes in Gustave Flaubert from Madame Bovary, when she goes to the ball at the Marquis d’Andervilliers’. That’s an extraordinary moment for me in literature as well as Jennifer Jones in the film, because here is this country bumpkin going to the big ball in a beautiful castle with a white dress, and it is the ultimate moment in her life. That she’s there swirling around, so there are some dresses, like the Chanel gown, that—for me—represent that scene.”

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Left: Latex sheath dress, Norma Kamali Spring 2012. Right: Chantilly lace gown with jet beading, Tom Ford Fall 2011.

“Everything has to have a personal narrative [when curating] or it doesn’t work. If you don’t have a story, nobody else is going to make their own story around it. I kept saying, when putting together the exhibit, that we cannot have this looking like a department store. Department store is the worst thing you can do if you’re trying to put an exhibit together in a museum. The moment it looks like a department store window, you are wrong and you’re lost. You have to continue. Even if people who are working with you do not understand what you’re doing, in your own mind you have to continue telling your stories to yourself about the dress, because then someone else will have a story about that. It’s always a suggestion or a nuance of a narrative. It’s also me going through my personal friendships with people to ask them to get the clothes here, or designers like Tom Ford, so it’s always emotional. [The exhibit] is not by any means trying to be academic or scientific. I don’t take notes. I don’t walk around with pieces of paper logging and jogging. No, no. I don’t sit down and think I have to write this down. I don’t have diaries. It’s just all coming out of my head.”

Left: Wool “Headmistress” dress by L’Wren Scott Spring 2009. Center: Sculptural wool coat, Rodarte Spring 2006. Right: Strapless silk and paper taffeta tiered dress, Pierre Cardin c. 1960s.

“I really think that there is a moment of great perfection. There are moments of modernity, there are moments of sexuality and sensuality. And there are moments of true refinement. Not every dress is a moment of refinement, but the dresses represent what I think is a modern approach to a show about fashion with individual styles celebrated. It’s about style, and personal individual style. Every one is my favorite. Each dress, as I say, is a personal experience and a personal journey—either with a friend, a designer or memory. So each dress for me is one that I love.”

Left: Zip-front neoprene dress, Alexis Asplundh’s SCAD senior fashion collection Spring 2012.

“SCAD has a fashion show for the graduating class every year. I come and there’s a young talent award given. We’re sitting in the fashion show watching the clothes going down the runway—you have to keep your eye tuned to what is special, which student is outstanding—and this body of clothes came down in the middle of the show. They were all made in bright color neoprene. Now, I did not know it was neoprene [at the time], but I was struck by the shape and the structure; the simplicity of these clothes and the color. Then I met the young lady, Alexis Asplundh, at an after party here in Magnolia Hall. And I said, ‘Tell me, why would you use this bonded fabric for these clothes, the neoprene? She said, ‘Because I’m a scuba diver.’ So it’s like the narrative comes from her personal life. She already had a job [lined up] at Reebok before she left SCAD.”

Right: Laser-cut wool mesh and glass bead sleeveless dinner dress, Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein Fall 2012.

“[The little black dress] is no longer a uniform, a code of establishment acceptability or appropriateness. It’s latex. It’s lace. It’s short. It’s long. It’s seventy yards of tulle with blue underneath it. It’s a ruby red skirt with a blue sapphire blouse. Or neoprene!”

Left to right: Silk and silk taffeta shirt and floor-length flounced red skirt, Oscar de la Renta Spring 2001. Beaded silk satin slip dress, Valentino haute couture 1991-92. Chantilly lace and cotton organza robe de style, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture Spring 1986. Lace with mousseline de soie-lined evening dress, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture Fall 1999. Midnight blue duchess satin hourglass evening dress with hand painted feathers, Victoria Wilmoth’s SCAD senior fashion collection Spring 2012.

“A great moment, for me, was to have come to that point with [the mannequins] seated as if they were in a fabulous ball chatting. Gossiping. They’re gossiping and they’re having a good time, and at the same time they’re in the element with their dresses on, probably envious of each other. The black bench has been designed from this bench [that we're sitting on], because this is a bench of mine that I’ve donated to SCAD. It’s an Irish bench. It was actually brown and I had it ebonized.”

Silk dinner dress, Marc Jacobs Fall 2012. Hat, Stephen Jones. Sculpture, Puritan’s Delight, Rachel Feinstein 2008.

“Rachel [Feinstein] is a dear friend of mine. And I asked for the sculpture before I got her dress, because in my mind it’s one of the most elegant things she’s ever done. I love her sculpture. To me, it symbolizes collapsed elegance. There are no rules anymore. Everything is collapsed. The little black dress is no longer a black dress with two strands of pearls. And I love that the coach with the collapsed wheels centers the show. It’s like a movie. It’s symbolism. It’s a metaphor. It’s black lacquer. It’s shiny. It’s sophisticated. It’s bold and daring, and it just… It’s perfect for the show. I love the carriage as much as I love the dresses.”

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